Electronic Publications

There are various forms of electronic publication, some suitable for specific display devices only. My main concern, however, is with those suitable for an ordinary desktop computer, which leaves basically two formats – PDF and EPUB.

Of the two, although PDF was first available, and is in widespread use, it is not so easy to use as EPUB. The PDF file is treated initially as one long scroll, with all the attendant problems of getting from one part to another. Using books with pages makes much more sense, and the EPUB format goes one better, normally displaying 3 pages at a time. A single click of the “Right Arrow” key takes us to the next batch of 3 pages, and the “Left Arrow” takes us 3 pages back

Furthermore, the file size for an EPUB document is about 1/3rd the size of the same file in PDF, as the EPUB format is compressed. Saving disk space and download times are both excellent ideas, and good reasons for choosing EPUB over PDF.

To view EPUB documents, I normally use the Epub Reader extension to the Firefox browser.

It is possible to change from one format to another using special programs. Calibre will convert PDF format to EPUB, but doesn’t do a clean job of it. Although Calibre is excellent for making small corrections – correcting spelling errors in an existing EPUB document, for example – it is not particularly suited for correcting a complete document if the layout is not as desired.

An alternative program, Sigil, does not currently have the ability to convert from PDF to EPUB, but it will accept the output from Calibre when already converted, and is easier to use than Calibre, in my opinion. Sigil uses the F2 key to switch from the code display to the text display. Calibre, on the other hand, uses the same screen area to display both the code and the text.

As far as writing EPUB files from scratch is concerned, I first thought of using Calibre, but that would have been too cumbersome. When you are writing, it is better to use a text program for simplicity. Looking around, I found that there is a “Writer2epub” extension to the Open Office Writer, and that is what I am currently trying out.

After a little experimentation, it is beginning to look quite good. The first attempt produced a document with every single line of text on a new page, but this is easily altered. Select the Metadata button, (the center button of the W2E controls), go to “Document Preferences” and turn off all file splitting. An alternative would be to merge html files using Calibre, but turning off file splitting keeps the number of files to a minimum, and is certainly preferable.

I was so impressed by one book – How Not To Die, by Michael Greger M.D. – that I really put in a lot of effort to convert it. It was only available in PDF format, and I wanted a nice clean copy in EPUB. After I had converted it in Calibre, I was left with a massive clean-up job, as almost every line required attention for one reason or another. It took me about a week!

I also found that some of my attempts to clean up were actually making matters worse. In both programs, Calibre and Sigil, you have the chance to make changes in either the code or the text display. Experience shows that making changes in the text display can lead to “code bloat”, and your file sizes become significantly larger to no useful purpose.

For example, where text is in italics, you may find the instruction for italic has been duplicated for different parts of the same word. This happens where the text that is affected by the instruction is moved, and the part that is moved requires the instruction to be added separately.

Similarly, problems can and do occur with Span. When moving text in text display mode, the Span instruction, and all sorts of unnecessary text control codes, may be added. If you are working in text display mode, you will not see this happen, and your file sizes may increase dramatically.

As a matter of policy, it pays to check the part of the document you are working on in code display mode, and then you can see where “Search and Replace” can be put to good use.

Is it worth the effort?

That very much depends on whether you have the time to spare, or not. I have lots of time, being retired, and am always looking for things to do. I also like a challenge, and since I started this conversion process have become quite proficient at it.

Your situation will probably be very different, so if you have better things to do with your time, use PDF!

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